I feel like I’ve written this article before.

Last year, I had a mediocre season and was left needing to Top 16 the final PT to remain Gold. I got there, finishing in Top 8 with Brave Naya.

This year went a little better than last—I had some good results. But I didn’t have any of the mediocre GP results to round out my points. Three of my six GP slots were unfilled. This left me needing to 11-5 the last PT to remain Gold. Improbably, I got there again, finishing in Top 8 with Red Deck Wins!

Red Deck Wins

Before testing started, I expected to end up on Abzan Control. The deck was already great, and it gets to add Languish, so why get fancy with some new brew?

What changed my mind was playing some games as “the bad guy” (Red Deck Wins) against new decks. The deck felt awesome, and I was far more interested in tuning it than the brews. As a sanity check, I had BenS play a set of Abzan game 1s against me, and while he did run a little bad, I crushed him.

I believe Sam Black came up with the original list, but regardless of who did, he, Justin Cohen, and co. did a lot of work tuning the deck in Madison. Ben Stark, Rich Hoaen, and the rest of Team UltraPRO were concurrently working on the deck in Vancouver. I was stuck at work in Virginia, but played various iterations of it on Magic Online.

Three groups concurrently testing the same deck worked out great. We were far less likely to get inbred, and were all trying different things and reporting back results.

This is the list I registered. Some teammates played slight tweaks, i.e. Firedrinker Satyr over Goblin Glory Chaser, Hammerhand over Titan’s Strength, Molten Vortex over the second Scouring Sands. But I think we were all within two cards of each other.

These are, of course, the two big additions from Origins. Exquisite Firecraft seems innocuous enough, but the redundancy it provides with Stoke the Flames means that you are much less reliant on creatures to kill your opponent. If your first wave of creatures is dealt with, or the board gets stalled, this deck can still very easily win by burning them out.

Abbot of Keral Keep is just insane. You can play him on turn 2 if you have no other play, but it always feels terrible to lose so much value. A big problem with this sort of deck is that you lose to yourself if you draw too many lands. Abbot helps mitigate this while leaving a very relevant body—it is rarely only a 2/1 when attacking.

The first 7 one-drops are pretty obvious: Monastery Swiftspear is incredible with so many spells, and Zurgo is great but you get stuck with one in hand a bit too often playing the full 4. My general experience with fast aggro decks is that you want 10-12 one-drops, but unfortunately there is a big drop off after the aforementioned seven. Lightning Berserker is great as a followup to Languish or after your opponent has already used a few removal spells. However, she is a lackluster turn-1 play, has huge diminishing returns on the second copy you draw, and just in general 1 toughness stinks in this format.

I’ve seen a few articles making fun of Goblin Glory Chaser, and obviously we didn’t think he is great with our whopping one copy, but he is serviceable. Firedrinker Satyr is godawful against a lot of decks, not the least of which is the mirror. Glory Chaser only briefly suffers from the 1 toughness problem, and it really isn’t hard to get him through on turn 2—your deck is 1/3 removal spells. Once he gets in there once, he can pretty easily deal ~6 more damage because all of your burn makes it hard for your opponent to have multiple blockers in play.

A day before the PT, this was a second Goblin Glory Chaser. It was a Hammerhand in some people’s lists. I had a Dragon Whisperer for awhile. (Which was actually pretty good against GR Devotion.) Titan’s Strength might seem mediocre, but it does quite a bit. The main purpose was against Courser/Caryatid decks, since what are they going to do—not block? But it is also just a Lava Spike (+ prowess) if they are tapped out. It can save Monastery Swiftspear and another creature from Drown in Sorrow. It can counter burn spells in the mirror, which actually came up twice for me and was backbreaking both times.

A lot has already been written this week about this deck, and Joel’s, which is almost the same, so I won’t belabor the other card choices too much. (See Frank Karsten’s article.) But suffice to say: Searing Blood and Eidolon of the Great Revel are great maindeck cards in this format, and people would have to drastically change the composition of their decks for that not to be true.

Draft #1

Per usual, the guys at my local store, Comics & Gaming in Gainesville/Fairfax, VA, help me set up a bunch of drafts before the set was on Magic Online. (My PT draft win rate over the last three seasons is incredibly high, and a lot of that is due to this extra practice, so thanks guys!) After ten or so drafts, I compared notes with the rest of Team UltraPRO during a virtual meeting. The Madison guys were doing even more drafts, so it was great to hear their thoughts. Additionally, everyone would post photos and findings about each of their draft decks. This works out very well, since you get to learn about all of the uncommons and rares that you haven’t had a chance to try yet.

My first draft started with a Kytheon’s Irregulars, but I saw virtually no other white cards pack one. I did see plenty of red, including a ~5th pick Fiery Impulse. After pack one, I had a lot of red cards, a couple of green cards, and Kytheon’s Irregulars. Pack two I open Knightly Valor and have to decide if I really want to push white or not. I figure I pretty much have to be able to scoop all the white coming to the right since I didn’t pass any, but this is a bit risky. I get paid off with 2 Iroas’s Champion. The deck is a little light on 2-drops for my liking, but plays out great and I’m off to a 3-0 start.

A couple notes on this deck:

  • Chandra’s Fury is a card I viewed mostly as sideboard material until Rich Hoaen told me he likes to play one main in most red decks. There are enough X/1s in the format that it is hard to not at least kill a Thopter with it, and just being an instant speed Lava Axe is pretty nice. I actually had a second copy in the sideboard, which I brought in against a BR Sacrifice deck that was full of X/1s.
  • Veteran’s Sidearm type cards are usually pretty bad, since +1/+1 is often not a relevant enough bonus. But the creatures are so small in this format that +1/+1 actually matters, so this card is fine. I still don’t play it in every deck, but it makes the cut about half the time.
  • Kytheon’s Irregulars has some heavy color requirements, so I’m not 100% sure it is correct to play a colorless land, but I think it is okay as the 18th, and I wanted 18 anyway because Molten Vortex removes a lot of the risk of flood.

Constructed: Day 1

I started off the Constructed portion of the tournament playing against three Jeskai decks in a row. One of them was tokens, while the others were Mantis Rider and friends. These are some pretty unlikely pairings, given the metagame breakdown, but I’ll take it. I think the matchup is quite good, since Searing Blood hits their best cards: Jace and Soulfire Grand Master (in addition to Seeker of the Way, if they play it). They also don’t close the door very quickly if you take out their creatures, so Outpost Siege is insane out of the board.

I won a game where I resolved turn 4 Siege and, throughout a long game, drew all four Abbots. This was in spite of my opponent casting 3 Ojutai’s Command to gain 12, including returning Jace and flashing back Command with Jace. He also cast 3 Treasure Cruises. It’s entirely possible he is favored there and I got lucky, but my point is only that Outpost Seige is at its best here, since you have plenty of time to gain advantage off of it.

One interesting play from that same game: I cast Abbot and hit Wild Slash with one mana up. My opponent has four mana up and a Jace in the graveyard. So if I Wild Slash him to not lose my free spell, but he has Ojutai’s Command, he will gain a total of 8 by returning Jace and flashing the Command back. I decide I’d rather potentially miss out on 2 damage if it stops him from getting an active planeswalker, and pass the turn. He does have the Command, and I kill the Jace with the Wild Slash.

After going 3-0 against Jeskai, I play against two red decks. First against a deck very similar to ours, and then against a 74-card mirror in the hands of Rich Hoaen, whom I couldn’t convince to play Goblin Glory Chaser. I outdraw my first opponent, and Rich beats me by landing a turn 4 Outpost Siege, while I’m stuck on three mana with a Chandra and Siege in hand. The Chandra would’ve even killed his Abbot if I hit four mana on time! Oh well.

So I end the day with a loss, but that leaves me at 7-1. If this were the first PT of the year, I’d be going to bed dreaming of Top 8. But since my back was against the wall for Gold, all I could think was how I needed to at least 4-4 on Saturday. I knew that was more likely than not, but I didn’t want to count my chickens.

Draft #2

My second draft started with a Thopter Spy Network, which I was honestly none too happy to see. It is powerful enough that you have to pick it, but I think the card is kind of a trap. I’ve seen a lot of Thopter Spy Network decks thanks to our team’s Limited group, and they are always full of what we refer to as “garbage artifacts.” It is very hard to get both Spy Network and a bunch of artifacts you’d want to play anyway. I have no problem abandoning a first pick in general, but I was kind of hoping I didn’t see blue after this so I could jump ship.

My next pick is Reave Soul, but then I get a Seismic Elemental ~4th, which really shouldn’t happen. That is a huge signal that red is open, so now I just need to figure out if I’m blue or black. The only blue cards I see are marginal, so I err on the side of red cards wherever possible for the rest of the pack. I also pick up a couple Bonded Constructs, which I don’t like in general, but I would play with Spy Network.

My next pack starts with another Seismic Elemental. I then see several packs where the best card is clearly green: Conclave Naturalists, Joraga Invocation, Zendikar Incarnate, etc. See you in hell, Thopter Spy Network!

I get a second Invocation pretty quickly, and am able to draft around having two, along with two Seismic Elementals. Basically all I want is a lot of guys on the board, no matter how small they are. Dragon Fodder is great in this deck, as is Visionary, since it finds another crappy guy to put into play. The Bonded Constructs even fit:

I start off with a loss to teammate Sam Black. He has a very strong RB deck, highlighted by Liliana. Game one I can beat an active Liliana if I draw one of my Seismic Elementals over a ~4-turn period, but I do not. Game 2 I think my hand is great, and I curve into a turn 4 Zendikar Incarnate. He blocks it with his Akroan Sergeant and then pumps his Sergeant with Titan’s Strength. Okay, whatever I can win without that guy. He then reanimates the Incarnate with Necromantic Summons, which has spell mastery thanks to a turn 2 Dragon Fodder. I am thinking about how I can maybe win if I 3-for-1 myself blocking his X/6 when he plays a Kothophed, Soul Hoarder before combat. Sheesh.

The next two rounds are against Makihito Mihara and Shahar Shenhar. Mihara really doesn’t cast much, and I have turn 6 Invocation one game and turn 5 Seismic Elemental the other. Shahar’s deck seems very good, with Pia and Kiran Nalaar, Whirler Rogue, Molten Vortex, etc. But luckily he only draws his good cards at the same time in one of the games.

I 2-1 the draft to be 5-1 in Limited and 9-2 overall.

Constructed: Day 2

I start off Constructed playing Sam Black for the second time on the day, in another red mirror. Much like with Rich, I know we both have the same sideboard strategy of Outpost Siege, and we have already discussed that we should be drawing first after board, and possibly game 1. So it really just came down to who drew better, which was luckily me.

I lose the next round to Abzan Rally, which I found to be one of our best matchups in testing. Despite Arashin Cleric being only okay against our list, life gain is still good enough in multiples, and he plays three of them between normal draws and Collected Companies. I’m now 10-3 and can’t lose again if I want to Top 8, but still have some breathing room for Gold.

I play yet another red mirror the next round, against another DC-area player: Tommy Ashton. Tommy plays Foundry Street Denizen, which usually goes with Dragon Fodder and Hordeling Outburst, so I side in my 2 Scouring Sands. I then immediately draw both while he plays only X/2s. I manage to win by killing a Monastery Swiftspear with them, making my Abbot a 4/3, but he tells me after the match that he doesn’t have the token-making cards. Oops.

The next round I play against eventual winner Joel Larsson in another mirror (#5 for those keeping track), for Top 8. We have coincidentally both locked up Gold the previous round, and are very relieved, so this match was a lot less tense than it might otherwise be. You can find a write-up here. (Spoiler: we both make it.)

I drew with Abzan Megamorph in the final round to lock up Top 8!

So to recap, my constructed opponents were:

3x Jeskai
5x Red Mirrors
1x Abzan Rally
1x Abzan Megamorph

Not exactly our expected, or the actual, metagame. But hey, I’ll take it.

Top 8

I am paired against UltraPRO teammate Matt Sperling in the Top 8. I already know this matchup well from testing. And I’m guaranteed to play a red mirror in Top 4, which I had plenty of practice against during the tournament. So I ask my teammates to help me figure out the UR Thopter matchup that I might play in the finals, since we have no real clue how that plays out. Ben Stark, Sam Black, David Irvine, and Andrew Baeckstrom are happy to oblige and test the matchup while I sleep. It didn’t end up mattering, but thanks for the help guys!

You can read the full match here, but I end up narrowly losing in the Top 8.

This leaves me 1 point short of Platinum, after being 3 points short last year. This is admittedly a little frustrating, but in both cases I was nowhere close going into the last PT, so it is hard to be too disappointed.

Ultimately, I’m ecstatic to have made my third Pro Tour Top 8, and to get a sixth year on the PT. That whole sentence is still surreal to me. I am very fortunate to have been on the PT this long—Magic is awesome. And, somehow, this isn’t even the highlight of my month: I get married in two weeks!

Given the timing, I won’t be at GP San Diego this weekend, but good luck to all the red mages there. I’ll be back later in the week with a sideboard guide for the deck. Thanks for reading!